The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism

Rothbard, Murray (1926-1995)

Murray Rothbard, a libertarian economist, political philosopher, historian, and activist, strove throughout his life to craft a systematic approach to liberty covering all the disciplines of the humane sciences. He was of central importance to the American libertarian movement because of both his writing and scholarship and his personal outreach to young libertarians. Many young libertarian writers and activists from the 1960s and 1970s credit Rothbard as a key influence, both intellectually and personally. He combined in one body of writing most of the intellectual concerns and approaches that defined the modern American libertarian movement: anarchism based in an Aristotelian natural law ethic, an Austrian/Misesian approach to economics, the promotion and extension of the 19th-century American anarchist tradition as exemplified in the writings of Lysander Spooner and Benjamin R. Tucker, and the use of historical analysis to demonstrate the damaging effects of state actions. For his coverage of the full range of libertarian philosophy and application in his writings, and his near ubiquitousness through most institutions of the libertarian movement from the 1960s to the 1980s, he was often thought of as having shaped modern American libertarian thought, although his thoroughgoing anarchism, cultural conservatism, and tendency to feud with former associates made him a controversial figure in the libertarian movement.

Rothbard received his doctorate in economics at Columbia University in 1956. His doctoral dissertation was later published as The Panic of 1819—a reinterpretation of the first economic depression in American history, which he determined was the fault of the Bank of the United States. The Bank of the United States was an early precursor of the Federal Reserve, which Rothbard blamed for a good portion of the 20th century’s economic ills in America. Rothbard taught economics at Brooklyn Polytechnic University and at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.

In the 1950s, Rothbard had been a regular attendee at Ludwig von Mises’s New York University seminars. In addition to writing and scholarship, he regarded building an activist movement as particularly important to the spread of libertarianism, and in the mid-1950s he was the key member of a libertarian social group in New York City known as the Circle Bastiat, which also included such later libertarian writers, historians, and scholars as Ralph Raico, Leonard Liggio, Robert Hessen, George Reisman, and Ronald Hamowy. Rothbard also met Ayn Rand in this period and briefly became part of her circle before departing amid mutual recriminations. Rothbard’s Aristotelian natural rights arguments for libertarianism, based on the natural right of self-ownership and a Lockean theory of how people homestead elements of the natural world as their property, are largely similar to Rand’s. Rothbard’s entire political philosophy is best described as propertarian; he reduced all human rights to rights of property, beginning with the natural right of self-ownership.

Rothbard’s writing career began in the late 1940s, and from then through the 1950s most of his essays and reviews appeared in small libertarian and right-wing journals such as Frank Chodorov’s analysis, Faith and Freedom, and the early National Review. In the late 1950s, Rothbard worked with and for the Volker Fund, a foundation then dedicated to the support of classical liberal and libertarian scholarship. He reviewed manuscripts for them, judging whether they were worthy of support, and searched academic journals and books for scholars worth cultivating. The fund supported Rothbard’s writing of his major economic work, Man, Economy, and State, which he published in 1962. This book was a full exposition of the entire body of economic thinking from first principles in the spirit of his mentor Mises’s Human Action. The book is in the Misesian tradition, building up economics as a deductive science starting from the fact that men act using scarce means to achieve subjectively valued ends. Rothbard’s 1970 book, Power and Market, which was originally intended as the final segment of Man, Economy, and State, extended his analysis of the economics of the free market to lay bare the effects of state interference in the workings of the market. Rothbard divided state intervention into three categories—singular, binary, and triangular—and analyzed their differing effects. Most of the essay involved an analysis of the effect of taxation on the economy. Rothbard concluded that there is no such thing as a neutral tax on an economy, and that to minimize taxation’s ill effects it is most important to worry about its total amount and less important to worry about the method of incidence.

In 1963, Rothbard published America’s Great Depression, applying Misesian business cycle theory to the depression of 1929. His thesis was that a credit inflation in the 1920s, caused by the Federal Reserve and unnoticed by many because it did not manifest itself in higher consumer goods prices, created malinvestments that made the initial crash inevitable. He further argued that the various government interventions of the Hoover administration exacerbated and extended the depression. The Federal Reserve and central banking were a particular bête noire of Rothbard’s. He wrote various essays, pamphlets, and a book, The Mystery of Banking, analyzing the inflationary effects of central banking. Rothbard advocated a 100% gold monetary standard, the only true defense against inflation, he maintained, and argued that fractional reserve banking was inherently fraudulent. His analysis was often specifically historical, rather than merely economic, relying on what Rothbard called power elite analysis, which some commentators condemned as conspiracy theory. In assessing the actions of the major participants in American banking, Rothbard considered the possible personal motivations of specific individuals behind the changes that have occurred in American banking policy.

In the mid-1960s, Rothbard entertained the possibility of creating a mass fusion movement with the growing student antiwar movement, reviving the Old Right (the anti-Rooseveltian right) and its anti-imperialist tradition in a new context, and winning over a new movement to a libertarian message. He and Leonard Liggio launched a journal called Left and Right to further forging such a movement. That journal lasted from 1965 to 1968. In the following year, Rothbard began a smaller newsletter called Libertarian Forum, which he edited and largely wrote semiregularly until 1984. This newsletter served as a home for his writings on libertarian movement strategy and for more casual cultural commentary. In the earliest days of Libertarian Forum, Rothbard joined Karl Hess in enthusiastically embracing the radical student movement of the time. However, he soon became disenchanted with what he perceived as the antireason and antimarket aspects of the New Left; by the early 1970s, he no longer saw fusion with campus radicals as key to the libertarian movement growth.

In 1973, Rothbard published For a New Liberty, a manifesto of libertarianism. That book presented an overview of his complete political vision, explaining how a strictly rights-based anarchist society could function and still meet all the social needs that are now met by government, from roads to defense to justice. (Rothbard credited the 19th-century Belgian author Gustave de Molinari as the intellectual father of this individualist anarchist view, which encompassed justice and defense.) Rothbard rejected Mises’s utilitarian ethics as an insufficient basis for a consistent libertarianism. In 1982, he published a defense of his entire intellectual edifice. The Ethics of Liberty presented and defended the moral philosophical case for a rights-based anarchism and criticized the various defenses of minimal-state libertarianism that had been put forward by Robert Nozick and F. A. Hayek. During the mid-1970s, he also was a key figure in a series of Institute for Humane Studies–sponsored conferences on Austrian economics, which were vital to the revival of that body of thought. From 1975 to 1979, Rothbard also published a four-volume popular history of the early United States, from North America’s earliest colonization through the adoption of the Constitution, interpreting the early history of America from a libertarian perspective. A projected fifth volume was never published.

Rothbard thought work toward real-world political change was vital to the libertarian intellectual movement. As a consequence, he became involved with the Libertarian Party. When the party was first launched in 1972, he had determined that conditions in the United States were still premature for such a move. However, by 1975, he became an enthusiastic participant, writing position papers and helping shape the party’s platform. In the late 1970s, as a result of his partnership with Kansas oil billionaire Charles Koch, Rothbard helped found various libertarian educational and advocacy organizations and think tanks, most significantly the Cato Institute and the Center for Libertarian Studies (CLS). He was the founding editor of the center’s journal, The Journal of Libertarian Studies, and remained so until his death. In the aftermath of the 1980 Libertarian presidential campaign, Rothbard broke with Koch and Cato president Ed Crane, and his involvement with any Koch-financed organizations ceased. In the meantime, the CLS was taken over by coin dealer Burt Blumert, and Rothbard continued working with it. In 1982, Rothbard became vice president for academic affairs at the Ludwig von Mises Institute, formed by former Ron Paul staff member Llewellyn Rockwell, Jr. The Mises Institute became Rothbard’s main berth for activism and movement education during the remainder of his life. Under the auspices of the Mises Institute, in 1985 Rothbard founded and edited an academic journal dedicated to Austrian economics research, The Review of Austrian Economics, which he edited until his death.

In 1989, Rothbard ended his involvement with the Libertarian Party and most other aspects of the libertarian movement. He and Rockwell of the Mises Institute attempted to launch a paleolibertarian movement, a combination of libertarian political ideology with cultural conservatism. To this end, Rothbard helped found the John Randolph Club, an alliance of the Mises Institute and its associates with the conservative Rockford Institute. With the cold war over and the right no longer obsessed with anticommunism, Rothbard thought the time was right for a fuller revival of the Old Right combination of antistate and antiwar politics. He flirted with support for the protectionist Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan because of his antiforeign interventionism. Alliance with the dominant antiwar political movement was the common thread that made sense of many of Rothbard’s seemingly erratic changes of political partnership throughout his life.

Rothbard died in 1995. Posthumously published were volumes one and two of a projected three-volume history of economic thought that had been his main concern in the last decade of his life. The last volume, projected to deal with economic thought in the 20th century, was never completed. The first two volumes advanced Rothbard’s non-Whig history of economic thought, emphasizing that the history of economics was not a continual progression from error to greater truth. Rothbard argued instead that even such free-market icons as Adam Smith represented regressions from largely forgotten previous advances in economic thinking, especially in the area of value theory.


Further Readings

Gordon, David. The Essential Rothbard. Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2007.

Rothbard, Murray. America’s Great Depression. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand, 1963.

———. Conceived in Liberty. 4 vols. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1975–1979.

———. For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto. New York: Macmillan, 1973.

———. Man, Economy, and State: A Treatise on Economic Principles. 2 vols. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand, 1962.

———. The Panic of 1819: Reactions and Policies. New York: Columbia University Press, 1962.

———. Power and Market: Government and the Economy. Menlo Park, CA: Institute for Humane Studies, 1970.

———. What Has Government Done to Our Money? Colorado Springs, CO: Pine Tree Press, 1963.

Originally published .